After receiving heart transplant, Atras sets example for others
Amy Hughes, NCAA.com
Today, the Hood College senior is closing out his collegiate swimming career and has his eye on both the World Transplant Games this June in Göteborg, Sweden, and a career in sports broadcasting.
“It started when I was three months old,” explains Atras, “when my mom noticed what she thought were feeding problems. It wasn’t until they did a chest X-ray that they realized I had an enlarged heart. I was diagnosed with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, which is an enlarged heart. That’s when they told us that I was in need of a transplant.”
That transplant gave Atras a normal life with a minimum of complications. He started swimming competitively at eight years old and played a variety of sports growing up, including baseball and hockey.
“One of the doctors told my mom that organ transplants aren’t to prolong life, they are to give life,” said Atras. “It wasn’t just to keep me around for a few more years. It was to give me the ability to be a kid and go out and play and have fun.”
Atras’ first love is hockey, but he is undersized for the sport at 5-foot-4 and chose to focus on swimming instead.
“I didn’t really start the formal year-round swimming until high school,” Atras said. “That was definitely a jump. Winter swimming was a lot more intense than the summer team I was on.
“When I was making my college decision, I knew I could swim at Hood because we’re a smaller team and we’re looking for bodies as opposed to times, so that would give me the chance to swim for four more years.”
“I received an e-mail from Kyle probably late in his senior year of high school,” Hood head coach Don Feinberg remembered, “and his times were quite slow. I was hesitant, but I wrote back and told him that we have a small team and need depth, so we’d love to have you come out. I was thinking maybe he doesn’t have much background and maybe I can do something with him.”
Feinberg didn’t know that Atras was a heart transplant patient.
“I didn’t know until he was on deck and I saw the big scar on his chest and asked him about it,” Feinberg said. “That showed a lot of his character. He makes no excuses for his heart or anything. He takes life as it is, that’s part of it, and he just moves on. It was really cool to discover that in the heart transplant world, swimming-wise, he’s quite good.”
The U.S. Transplant Games take place in even-numbered years, most recently in Madison, Wis., in 2010. Atras has participated in the biennial Games since 2000. He has participated in the World Transplant Games, which are also contested on a biennial basis in odd-numbered years, in Bangkok, Thailand, and Australia’s Gold Coast.
“It’s been really cool to see those different places,” Atras said. “It’s cool to meet people like that from all over the world and realize that 18- or 19-year-olds all over the world are pretty much the same. I still talk to a few of them here and there through Facebook and Skype and stuff like that.”
The next World Transplant Games are a goal for Atras as well. “The hopes are to go to the World Games in Göteborg, Sweden, this summer [June 17-24]. As long as we can get the funds together for that, I’ll be doing that this year too.”
“He’s never going to light the world on fire as far as a non-heart transplant athlete,” Feinberg said, “but he certainly has lit the world on fire within the heart transplant world.
“Kyle is the perfect definition of leading by example,” Feinberg continued. “He never makes any excuses. Ever. He is just thankful every single day of his life that he’s alive and was offered a second chance.”
The second chance of a heart transplant has come with a few bumps in the road. Atras specifically points out two of them.
“When I was in fifth grade,” Atras said, “I developed PTLD, which is post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, which is a type of lymphoma that comes from being on the anti-rejection drugs for so long. It opened up my immune system to this type of lymphoma. We went through with that and it’s been in remission for some time now. After my freshman year of high school, I developed autoimmune hemolytic anemia, which the doctors are pretty sure was caused by one of the rejection medicines I was taking at the time. Once we switched the medicines from one to the other, that situation cleared itself up. It’s kind of nice to have it be that kind of easy.”
Atras, a team captain for the Blazers, has been busy with internships during swimming’s off-season in preparation for a career in sports broadcasting.
“I worked at WIP in Philadelphia and that was a nice internship,” Atras said. “This past semester, I worked at Sirius/XM in their sports department down in D.C. Those are the two internships that have gotten me a lot of contacts, so maybe after graduation I can get back in touch and see what’s available. That’s my ideal right now. Start at the bottom and work my way up.”
Feinberg’s descriptions of Kyle’s collegiate career prove that Atras already knows how to climb any mountains in his path.
“I look at what Kyle has done, and if everyone took that home with them, they’d be a better person,” Feinberg said. “He will be missed here. As a person, as an individual and as a swimmer. Everyone sees this kid that had a heart transplant and has been swimming all four years of college. I can count on one hand how many practices he’s missed, and those were all because he had to take a trip to see his cardiologist for a check-up. He’s awesome to have as a team captain. When other swimmers find themselves whining or complaining about something, I’ll have Kyle talk to them or I’ll use him as an example. He never misses a practice. He does every set of every workout. He’s always here on time.”
That time on the pool deck at Hood is coming to a close. The Hood men’s swimming team completed its dual meet schedule on Jan. 29, and will close out the season at the Capital Athletic Conference Championships on Feb. 18-20.
“The big thing has been the people I’ve met through the team,” Atras said. “The close bonding. We’re here for the month of January when everyone else but the basketball team is home for break. That’s when we’re really all together and it’s bonding. It’s a family-type deal. It’s been an awesome four years of swimming and it’s hard to believe that it’s almost over. It still seems like not too long ago that I was the freshman in Lane 6 and now all of a sudden we’ve had our last meet before the conference championships.”